In an interview before he died, songwriter John Prine described his old age, his daily life, his relationships with others.
“I’m good at hiding,” he said, laughing.
He meant hiding from loved ones, from professional obligations. He meant slipping away for chunks of the day to do nothing much at all.
I liked the breezy, self-effacing way Prine copped to an activity I myself often feel guilty about.
Of course it helps to be a world-famous songwriter. Who in the world is going to object to more free time for the man who wrote “Angel from Montgomery?”
I guess the people who might have objected were some of the people Prine loved the most — family, friends, fellow musicians. But there’s a time when the needs of self take precedence over responsibilities to others.
Joseph Campbell, the expert on mythology, was a big advocate of ‘wandering around,’ bumping into the stuff of life, following one’s internal guide toward people, places, or ideas which might bring happiness or fulfillment.
There’s a limit, of course. If you are taking care of young children or an elderly parent, if you are trying to feed a family, it seems less winning and actualized to go Full Vagabond.
When I was in college, I had a meal with a family friend who was in business school at the same university. He was asking about my long-range plans. Where did I see myself in 10 years? Were there people I could start networking with in college to guide me toward my goals?
The guy meant well. But I was slippery and uncooperative in the goal-setting project. At a certain point he just smiled.
“Wow, you’re really not ambitious,” he said, “like at all.”
A few years later, the grandfather of another friend was quizzing me along similar lines. He wanted to know what I was up to, what kind of work I was doing. I was a newspaper reporter, but he could sense a lack of enthusiasm.
He tried to help me brainstorm about other careers. He did his best, but landed on public relations.
Which seemed less appealing than news reporting.
More recently, a friend generously suggested ways I could expand my online readership. But that’s really the last thing I want. It took me long enough to find my voice. A bunch of new readers would chase the voice away.
Way, way back, I had my voice. One day when I was a toddler, my mom slathered butter onto a dinner roll for me.
Apparently a buttered roll wasn’t something I was interested in. (Sounds pretty awesome to me right now.) Without yelling — just in an exasperated, matter-of-fact objection — my 3-year-old self said, ‘Oh goddamn, Mom.’
So I had my voice then anyway. But from early adolescence onward, I gradually lost the plot. I didn’t know what was important to me, what I believed in, what lit me up inside, whether for good (music, art, idleness) or for bad (buttered dinner rolls). More and more, I was in the business of doing what others wanted or expected. I was an inveterate people-pleaser.
As an adult, I wrote and self-published three novels. These books were fine, they had snippets of good writing. But there was a reason they were self-published, not regular-published. I wasn’t on fire with something to say. My heart wasn’t open. I didn’t know myself very well.
Things started to change when I got married, and we had kids. That broke my heart open and helped me start to find my way again.
Two parts of the Bible resonate for me: Ecclesiastes and the Sermon on the Mount. As a model for behavior, the Sermon on the Mount seems like the mark to aim for. But it’s a mark which we humans usually miss, by a lot.
Plus, to be honest, I’m pretty lazy.
Which is where Ecclesiastes comes in. There’s nothing new under the sun. All is vanity.
Not only do I agree with this depressing bit of wisdom, but it also gives a rock-solid alibi for that part of me which prefers wandering, hiding, not being ambitious — the part which mostly just wants to be left alone.
An astrologer once told me about a past life I supposedly lived. She said I was wrongfully convicted and exiled to an island. She said I suffered years of abuse, even torture. She claimed there was a rupture in my God-consciousness which sort of leaked out and colored the other lifetimes going forward.
I thought with past-life readings you get to be someone important or famous — Alexander the Great, da Vinci, maybe Pocahontas. Oh well.
So maybe this alleged past-life happened. Who knows? More to the point, who cares? I’m not in exile today. I’m not being beaten mercilessly right now. That’s not nothing. Not everyone can say that. Certainly many thousands of Uighurs can’t. Hell, people in many countries — mine included — can’t.
Before the American writer William Alexander Percy died unexpectedly at 56, he recalled walking one evening through a graveyard in his hometown.
As he enjoyed the twilight and reflected on the lives of the dead, he also reflected on his own life.
One by one I count the failures — at law undistinguished, at teaching unprepared, at soldiering average, at love second-best, at poetry forgotten before remembered — and I acknowledge the deficit. I am not proud, but I am not ashamed. What have defeats and failures to do with the good life? But closer lacks, more troubling doubts assail me. Of all the people I have loved, wisely and unwisely, deeply and passingly, I have loved no one so much as myself. Of all the hours of happiness granted me, none has been so keen and holy as a few unpredictable moments alone.
I recognize myself in those words.
I’ve certainly been selfish enough. I’ve been insensitive to people I care about. In a few key moments, I didn’t offer the basic consideration, sympathy, or honesty which might have eased another’s pain.
It’s okay. I’m not beating myself up. I say it more as a neutral observation, one of the “jackdaw pickings of a secret and curious heart,” to borrow another Percy line.
I was walking with a friend in Los Angeles. We passed a makeshift community bulletin-board. A colony of bees lived at the base of a nearby tree. Apparently, the presence of so many bees had bothered someone enough that he (or she) tried twice to kill the colony, once by stuffing gasoline-soaked rags into the hole, later by packing dirt into it.
These attempts killed some bees, but didn’t eradicate the colony. Handwritten notes, drawings, and poems sprung up. The messages asked the bee killer to knock it off, in light of declining bee populations across the U.S.
As we passed this bulletin board, my friend made a comment about first-world problems in a rich, white neighborhood.
Sure, but also — the pro-bees board seems like a nice example of starting small, starting local.
When I’m feeling down or I don’t particularly know what to do with myself, I stop and try to make the space right around me clean and orderly, even beautiful. To me, the concern for bees comes from the same place. Start small. Make a small place beautiful.
I realized a couple years ago that I was a good candidate for a midlife crisis. My beloved dog Boomer was getting older. My kids would soon leave for college. And with their departure, sayonara to my ready excuse for idleness, hiding, wandering, having no ambition.
Stay-at-home parenting, not public relations, was the right job for me. I mean, I worked hard at it, but I also got plenty of free time, I didn’t have a boss. I didn’t have to go to the office. Plus, it gave me an easy answer when someone asked, “So what do you do?”
Actually, horrible question, but yeah — what do I do?
I’m like John Prine, I hide. I also nap. And I listen to an unholy number of podcasts. (The back-to-work résumé practically writes itself.)
A midlife crisis seemed so likely that I didn’t bother trying to avoid it. I just decided to try to do mine on a small scale, in slow motion. Whatever nonsense I got up to, I wanted it to unfold gradually, step by step. To minimize the damage to loved ones, I guess.
When I explained the slow-motion idea to my friend Russell, he said, “Sounds good! Just don’t go to jail!”
I considered this.
“Wait, why not?” I said.
Russell — and this made me happy — said, “Eh. Go to jail. Someone will bail you out.”
Weirdly, going to jail is on my bucket list. As long as I’m locked up for a good reason —protesting against animal cruelty maybe, or U.S. drone strikes, or school shootings, or whatever new type of bullshit our country comes up with next — then sure, I’ll go to jail.
I’m not excited for inmate-on-inmate violence, of course. But at least I would have time on my hands. And no one would ask me what I do. In jail I’m guessing they’d ask what I did.
Maybe the past-life lady was right. Maybe there is a wrongful conviction in my ancient past. People are said to revisit and re-enact past traumas in search of meaning and healing. Maybe I want to be in jail again, but this time on my own terms. (Less torture, shorter stay.)
My midlife-crisis fantasies aren’t the usual ones, like adultery or a fancy car. The main recurring wish — apart from doing time, of course — is to walk into the wilderness and never return. Extreme solitude for the rest of my life.
Fun! Inexpensive! Reduced life expectancy!
I mean, I think my wife and kids would be bummed. But also maybe I’m projecting?